-The Human side of design

You have 20 seconds to make your point.

You have 20 seconds to make your point.

Nov 28, 2023

I’ve been in meetings when it was tough to concentrate because the presenter and even the people who gave feedback were talking in extremely long sentences. 

A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” This quote from Charles Kettering defines how important it is to get through your message effectively. So much depends on how you phrase a problem. The need to state your problem clearly is inevitable whenever you hold a presentation, share your feedback, or do an evaluation. 

An article in Time’s neuroscience section states that we have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. The study highlights the effects of an increasingly digitized lifestyle on the brain. The average attention span for the notoriously ill-focused goldfish is nine seconds. According to a study by Microsoft Corp, people our age generally lose concentration after eight seconds. 

Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What Internet is Doing to Our Brains, writes about a significant turning point in our cultural and intellectual history–a moment of transition between two different ways of thinking. In exchange for the immersing richness of the Internet, we must give up what Carr calls our “old linear flow of thought.” The linear mind, which is calm, concentrated, and undistracted, is being pushed aside by a new kind of impatient, fragmented mind. This new type of mind wants to receive info in short spurts.

Based on the research, my recommendation is to communicate briefly and effectively.

Bing observed that if an engineer improves the server performance by 10ms (that’s 1/30 of the speed that our eyes blink), it creates more income for his company than the total yearly cost of that engineer. This is how much time matters in our new digital age. The most crucial product design skill is clear and compelling communication.

I have a personal practice that can help you be a better communicator.

This exercise helps you to be clear and compelling. The task is making your point about anything within 20 seconds. The only thing you need is a timer and a lot of practice. We can be so easily distracted and get lost in the details that it will be unusual and sometimes impossible to keep this time limit. Track your responses whenever you interact in a meeting or talk professionally with colleagues and check how long it takes to add your part to the conversation.

To practice this, select any object in the room, a vase, for example. First, try to tell everything about the vase you can see, all the minute details, in 10-15 sentences. Then, take a 2-3 minute break. After the break, summarize everything you described about the vase within 2-3 brief sentences. The more you can cover, the better. Try to create an aggregate of every detail you said but do it so that you cover everything. This might seem hard at first, but you will improve with time. 

An excellent way to think about this task is to apply what we learned in school about sets, the mathematical models for collecting different things. As a first step, write all the little details you mentioned about the vase on the canvas as words. Then as a second step, you can order them in different sets to decrease the number of specifics. As a third step, you would try to put these sets into other sets to reduce the number more. In the end, you have a well-aggregated collection of sets that is brief and easy to deliver.

Here are some tips to focus on while you master this skill.

Prepare in advance. Preparation is critical, so you can think through things to give a brief answer. 

• Start with a statement.

• Get your key message out quickly. It should ideally happen within the first three sentences.

• Use power words. Phrases like “My main point is” or “The key takeaway is.”

• Don’t use ten-dollar words. A good message is what a 14-year-old can also understand. A funny practice: let’s listen to how some US politicians speak. They try to avoid complicated words and talk like a ten year old, so that a wider audience will understand their message.

• Avoid jargon phases. Some people think they will seem smarter if they use jargon, but they are only losing listeners. (Jargon is okay in certain situations.)

• Learn to stop in time. Once you got your message out, and made your point, stop.

I like to think about this practice as pruning. Pruning consists in reducing the tree by cutting away dead wood. This process removes older wood, giving the tree a rounded shape and encouraging fruit production and harvesting. You want to do the same when you share your ideas. The main idea you want to share is the strong and healthy tree branch in the middle. You need to cut down the little branches, so the main one can thrive. 

I have been using Twitter for more than 15 years now, and the main benefit of it, besides meeting people on the platform and getting important information, is this skill I picked up over the years. I can share almost everything in 140 characters. Back then, this was Twitter’s original character limit. 

Articulating your ideas is one of the most critical aspects of design–and a critical skill for everyone in the company. No matter how you work or what level you’re at, you will need to get approval from someone. Mastering this practice can also be helpful for brainstorming and technical debates. When there is an intense team conversation, it is crucial to communicate fast, briefly, and on point. 

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